In science fiction, communication between alien races often comes courtesy of a universal translator, which instantly converts one person’s language into another’s. But what if communication has certain unintended consequences…like, say, getting the recipient drunk? Handy for parties; a problem for work. But in writer Eddie Robson’s science fiction mystery novel Drunk On All Your Strange New Words (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), getting hammered on language isn’t the biggest problem for Lydia, the cultural attaché for an alien diplomat. In the following email interview, Robson explains what inspired and influenced this sci-fi story.
To start, what is Drunk On All Your Strange New Words about?
It’s set in Manhattan in the late 21st century, a couple of decades after an alien race called the Logi makes contact with Earth. They communicate telepathically, and only a tiny minority of humans have the capability to learn their language, which is how Lydia, a young woman from a poor area of Yorkshire, ends up working for Fitzwilliam, the Logi cultural attaché in New York City. She’s feeling the pressure of doing this arduous job where she doesn’t fit in — translating the Logi’s language creates a feeling of drunkenness in human brains — and has been toying with the idea of quitting. Then Fitz is murdered, and the police’s list of suspects starts and ends with Lydia.
Where did you get the idea for Drunk On All Your Strange New Words? And is there a significance to Lydia being a translator in the diplomatic service as opposed to being a diplomat herself or the assistant to a diplomat?
Yes, definitely — that’s where the idea started. I was watching Parasite at the cinema, and there was a live broadcast of a Q&A after it, where they had someone translating from Korean to English, and I was thinking of the amazing skill of that job and whether it would become obsolete, since live translation technology is improving all the time and it’s easy to imagine everyone having a Babel Fish type device that you stick in your ear and that does the job. Going to Japan and having someone talk to me via Google Translate — not just looking up the sentence, but getting the software to actually say it — really brought that home to me, especially as someone who’s always struggled with languages. I don’t know why, since my whole job is based around using English, I’m so bad with other languages.
Anyway, this led me to think, what if there was a situation where that technology didn’t work, and you still needed human translators? And that led me on to psychic aliens who have no affinity for our technology. I keep returning to this idea of digital versus analogue. Not that I dislike digital, I use digital technology all the time, but I also love analogue technology and its weird foibles, and all that fed into the concept. It all built from there, the idea of Lydia having a diplomatic role. I’d just been watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the ’70s TV series, and I think that’s where the cultural attaché idea came from. That worked well because in the real world it’s a broadly defined role and so I could adapt it to my needs.
The idea of there being a murder also came very early. The translator is the only human who speaks to them directly, so if they’re dead, the translator suddenly becomes this figure of great interest, and is obviously going to fall under suspicion, being so close to the victim. And no-one quite knows what their relationship was like.
It sounds like Drunk On All Your Strange New Words is a sci-fi mystery. Is that how you’d describe it?
Yeah, I’d say sci-fi mystery covers it. I’ve always liked detective stories where the detective isn’t a cop or even a P.I., they’re just someone who has to take on the role because they’re personally involved in the mystery, or have to prove their own innocence, or just get obsessed by it. Not so much the old British tradition of the “talented amateur” with time on their hands, more the noir stories where that happens. I’ve always wanted to write one of those, and this is it.
So, how mysterious does this story get? Is it a who-dunnit that people can try and solve, or is it more like a sci-fi thriller?
I think it’s a bit of both. I didn’t want to write a puzzle-box story with a bunch of suspects and a bunch of clues for you to put together. It’s a bit more twisty-turny than that. But the clues are there, I think.
One of the things detective fiction does really well is they let you explore a world. That’s the really fun thing about a writer like Raymond Chandler; he enjoys sending Marlowe out to talk to all these different characters, and through that you get a picture of how that world fits together, who’s at the top and who’s at the bottom and how everything works, and that’s at least as interesting to me as the mystery itself — though I hate it when writers say things like “The mystery isn’t actually important” because of course it is, you’re short-changing your readers if you act like it doesn’t matter. But obviously world-building is a big part of the appeal of sci-fi, and I found the detective narrative a really good way to do that.
You mentioned the Babel Fish earlier. Which makes me wonder: Is Drunk On All Your Strange New Words humorous like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy?
I definitely wouldn’t describe this one as a “comedic” novel, because I don’t think that’s the tone of it. In fact, I think comic sci-fi is a difficult tone to pull off in prose. I’d love to write something like that, and I think someday I’ll have a go, but it is tricky, and it’s conspicuous how few really successful writers there are in that style. Adams was so hugely successful, you’d think there’d be far more comic sci-fi writers than there are. But Drunk was never going to be like that, I wanted it to have a more threatening air and too much comedy would have undercut that. It might also be that I was coming straight off writing Car Crash, my rom-com for Audible, which was overtly comedic — I tend to react against the last thing I wrote.
But I’d never write something with no humor in it, and there’s definitely humor in this book — more than in my previous novel Hearts Of Oak, I think. Lydia constantly feels ill at ease, she’s grown up poor in Yorkshire and never, ever expected to be operating in the cultural scene of New York City, so there’s something inherently comic about her.
Now that I think of it, it never even occurred to me to make her some kind of slick and super-efficient figure who gets knocked off course by this huge unexpected event. I could have told the story that way, that would have been a perfectly valid way of doing it, but I just didn’t want to write that character, I wanted to write someone who feels like she doesn’t know what she’s doing — although she’s smarter and more competent than she gives herself credit for — and is irreverent.
So, who do you see as being the biggest influences on the tone of Drunk On All Your Strange New Words?
I keep trying to write like Ali Smith at the moment. I’m not sure I’m anywhere close to achieving it, and her books are nothing like mine, but I think she’s one of the funniest writers around, as well as one of the most profound. And I think there’s loads of humor in Philip K. Dick, which people rarely seem to talk about. People always talk about his ideas and his wild storytelling, but the line “Let’s hear it for the vague blur!” in A Scanner Darkly made me laugh so much I had to put the book down for a minute.
And are there any writers you see as being a big influence on the mystery aspects of the story?
Definitely The City And The City by China Miéville, I think that’s the biggest. I love that sense it has of pulling on a thread and causing loads of things to unravel. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, especially City Of Glass, is always one I think of when writing detective stories.
So aside from Smith, Miéville, and Auster, are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that you feel had a big influence on Drunk On All Your Strange New Words, but not on anything else you’ve written?
Yeah, a novel called America City by Chris Beckett, which is all about the politics of a future America where climate is breaking down and they need to justify annexing Canada, which I thought was very sharp on where things might be going. I didn’t want to write something as bleak as that, but its ideas were very helpful. And Body Tourists by Jane Rogers influenced Lydia’s background a lot, with its swathes of Northern England where there are no jobs and the politicians have given up on them.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Drunk On All Your Strange New Words was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I’m pretty much always influenced by The Third Man. It’s such a rich text, you can rip it off over and over again and end up with different things each time. And I was thinking about those kind of thrillers that snowball, like Edge Of Darkness and Giri/Haji. I set it in New York City because I’ve been there a couple of times and have a decent sense of the geography, but TV shows set there were really helpful — Russian Doll was a big one, but actually I think Girls has a really good sense of place and how the city fits together, as well as what it’s like to be on the fringes of its academic and cultural scene. I’m sure some would say “Ah but it’s not really like that,” but even if it’s not, it’s something you can build on.
Sci-fi stories and mystery novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is Drunk On All Your Strange New Words?
It’s definitely a stand-alone. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever had an idea where I thought, “This must be a series of novels.” I don’t know why — maybe because I tend not to start from setting. Generally speaking I think writers either start with character, story, or setting — they’re all valid, whatever gets you started is fine, and I’m not suggesting writers always start from the same one, I’ve done all three. But most often I start with story, and sometimes with character, and I build the world around that. So I rarely think “Ah, this is a situation that will sustain many stories,” because it’s been built to service one story. It’s odd because I come up with ideas for ongoing TV shows all the time, and obviously they have to sustain more than one story — I guess it’s just the way it’s fallen, all my novels so far have come from self-contained ideas.
We talked a moment ago about the movies, TV shows, and games that had an influence on Drunk On All Your Strange New Words. But I’d like to flip the script, as you kids probably don’t say anymore, and ask you this: Do you think Drunk On All Your Strange New Words could work as a movie, show, or game?
Ooh, I hadn’t thought of it being a game but now I’m intrigued by the idea. It’s got that quest-based narrative, which works, but I think it’d need some side quests; these days you don’t want a story-based game to feel too linear. If you could buy the model of Manhattan from the Spider-Man game and adapt it for the future of the novel, that would be cool. Although there’s actually a game in the novel, which is an important part of it, and that might be weird. So I think I’ll say TV show — but not a really long one. It’s not a multi-protagonist story, it’s tightly focused around one character, so it’s not naturally an ensemble piece like most serialized TV shows are. Actually I like the like the idea of it being seven or eight half-hour episodes, like Russian Doll. I’d love it to be a TV show.
And if that happened, who would you want them to cast as Lydia and the other main characters?
If she can do a Yorkshire accent, Nicola Coughlan as Lydia. In fact even if she can’t, we’ll just change it, say she’s Irish. Fitz needs a very dry, measured voice — Tom Hollander would be perfect. Madison’s voice I always heard as Thandie Newton. For Hari, I’d go for Dev Patel.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Drunk On All Your Strange New Words?
After writing it I’ve got really into the idea of doing more sci-fi takes on the standard crime narratives. I want do to a heist story next — something from the criminals’ point of view.
Finally, if someone enjoys Drunk On All Your Strange New Words, what sci-fi mystery novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
Philip K. Dick’s Time Out Of Joint. A friend assumed I’d read it because my Doctor Who audio Human Resources is a lot like it, but I hadn’t. Then I read it and realized it was also a lot like Hearts Of Oak, which I was halfway through writing. But it’s a great puzzle of a story, with lots of humor, and you can read it in an afternoon.